The Difficulty with Submission in Lent

By Joe LaGuardia

Several years ago–has to be nearly a decade by now–the Holy Spirit convicted me that I needed to learn a thing or two about submission and obedience.  I had been a Christ-follower for some time, but I have always had a flavor for independence and strong-willed stubbornness.

In fact, I became a Baptist not 10 years earlier precisely because I did not want to answer to a bishop, pope, or diocese bureaucracy.  A Baptist minister only answers to his or her congregation, but that’s different: there is a relationship; things are contextual; there is room for understanding and dialogue.  Joe LaGuardia was not going to have to explain his philosophy of ministry to some fool who lives tens of hundreds of miles away.

You can see where my problem and attitude can get the best of me here.

So the Holy Spirit convicted me.  God was going to bend my will towards His own one way or another, and it was going to be during none other than the season of Lent.  I had practiced Lent before, but not as seriously as I should have or could have.

The Holy Spirit showed me the first steps: I felt led to go to a nearby monastery and seek out one of the fathers for spiritual direction.  The Holy Spirit did not give me much of anything else, but that’s the marching orders that I got, so I stuck with it.

When I made the appointment, I was assigned to Father Francis once a month.  His specialty (and the monks do have specialties) was centering prayer, and he wanted to instruct me on this ancient practice–a time of silence and solitude, of centering, of meeting with God for nothing more than to spend time with my beloved Creator–every time we met.

Father Francis gave me a card with instructions, and for the next four months he instructed me on various ways to pray.  I was the one seeking spiritual direction, but I did not get a word in edgewise.  Yet, every time I became frustrated with my sessions with the Father, the Holy Spirit jumped in and reminded me why I was meeting in the first place: this was not about me, it was about submission.  It was about obedience.

I was to obey all of the instructions that Father Frances gave me with no questions asked.

I did.  For the entire season of Lent and throughout that summer, I followed those instructions.  I sat in silence and prayer for about 15-20 minutes a day.  I practiced saying my “prayer word,” and sought to master the nuances of apophatic prayer (those of you who studied this stuff know what I mean).  I did my homework.

I was moved.  I was heart-broken (in a good, cathartic way). I was frustrated.  I was angry– all of the paradoxical feelings that confront us when we fast and submit to the kind of life in which God makes us step out of the throne of our hearts so that Jesus can take his place as Lord of our lives. This prayer-stuff was hard work.

I say all of that now because those feelings still arise in me every Lent.  Although I have done something serious and intentional for the season every year since that time–not to mention writing a dissertation on spiritual disciplines and spiritual direction, of which all of this prayer work and submission had been a part–it is still difficult for me to move over and let God direct my life.

It seems that this season is made more difficult because the Holy Spirit is reviving in me some old wounds that I have not faced in a long time–mostly surrounding some squabbles I had with Baptist clergy several years back.

I won’t bore you with the details, but I am not sure I forgave some fellow pastors who have hurt me during that time.  And, apparently, that hurt still abides; so God is bringing me back to the drawing board again–and its about submission.  It is always about submission.  How else are we to travel through Lent and to the cross of Christ, the very place where we crucify our old selves, false selves, ego, and pride that ensnare us and get in God’s way?

Its a terrible, terrible job (just being honest), but we have to do it.

This year, in order to teach me the full weight of obedience again, God pinned me down on my love for XM radio in the car, to which I’ve subscribed since 2008.  As a result, I will be…..(I can’t even write it but I will)……discontinuing….(oooh, ouch!)…..my subscription….(doh!)…..for a time, and that’s the one thing (the Holy Spirit ALWAYS finds the ONE thing!) that I don’t want to let go of most.  So that’s that.

Perhaps those old wounds–and that clergy battle from years ago–is merely a scapegoat.  I don’t want to cast my love for XM radio at the foot of the cross of Christ, so I’d rather put them there.

So here we go again…

 

 

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Lent is the valley portion of faith

love lentLent began this week in the life of the church.  It is a time of preparation and penitence, a time for deep reflection in the depth of winter’s cold.  Although it is not a common practice in churches, Lent can still hold powerful inspiration for a vibrant faith.

Lent has fallen by the wayside because many folks brand it as too “ritualistic” for relational congregations seeking to be relevant.  Yet, it is one of the most ancient practices of the Christian church, and to say that Lent is irrelevant is like saying my family tree has no influence on who I am as a person.

Truth is, practicing a ritual now and then gets us out of the self-centered, individualistic cult that Christianity has become for far too many communities of faith.

Lent originated in the second century for converts preparing for baptism.  It was Irenaus of Lyons, according to author Ted Olsen, who instituted Lent as a weekend of fasting and self-reflection.  Converting to Christianity back then was not as easy as walking up the aisle and saying a simple prayer; discernment, catechism, and Lent were a part of the process.

Years later, the Council of Nicea expanded Lent to forty days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Holy Week.  Forty represented a sacred number:  Rain fell for 40 days while Noah and his family took up residence in an arc.  Israel was in the wilderness for 40 years after Exodus, Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, and Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness staving off Satan’s temptations.

We adhere to so many bedrock beliefs resulting from that Council of old, including Christ’s deity and the Trinity, so it makes sense to include the Council’s call for church-wide fasting.

What is interesting is that the first Sunday in Lent follows Transfiguration Sunday the week before.  The Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) was the event in which Jesus transfigured in front of Peter and John on a mountaintop and communed with Moses and Elijah.  According to Pastor Tom Arthur, who wrote a devotional for Disciplines: A Book of Daily Devotions (Upper Room books, p. 58-59), Transfiguration is the mountaintop experience in a life of faith, whereas Lent is the valley experience of faith.

I agree with Pastor Arthur that we all face mountaintops and valleys in our spiritual life and that our natural inclination is to want to stay on the mountain.

The mountaintop experience comes when we feel closest to God and receive a clarity of spiritual vision that seems to cut through all the difficulties of life.  It can result from an especially moving church service or from a significant event like the birth of a child.  Like Peter and John, we want to stay in that place and build altars.  We want to milk the emotional high.

We can’t stay on the mountaintop, and some of us try and get back up the mountain by reading new books, buying new Bibles, and even switching churches. Like Moses and Jesus, however, we eventually have to come down and continue the journey of faith.  It is by valley that we get to the next mountain.

Lent is that wilderness place that plunges us into temptation, patience, and forbearance.  It echoes the feelings you get on Sunday night when you know you have to go back to work the next morning; it feels cold like the winter in which Lent falls.  God seems far away, and hope elusive.

Yet, even in Lent, light comes.  At my church, we begin the season of Lent by having worship on Ash Wednesday.  There, we all get ashes spread on our foreheads as a sign that we are marked with Christ.

Last year, after the service I went shopping and forgot to clean my forehead.  The store employee mentioned it to me, and I told her what the ashes meant.  The ashes are a sign of mourning in ancient cultures, but they remind us that God has sealed us for eternal life.

Yes, Lent plunges us into winter’s darkness, but brings with it the promise of light at the end of the tunnel.  It may be a difficult season, but Easter is just around the corner.

Baptists do Lent too

The other day I went into a local Christian bookstore and asked if they carried any children trinkets for Ash Wednesday–things like stickers and pencils and stuff.   I was caught off-guard when the store clerk informed me that, no, they don’t carry Ash Wednesday stuff because Baptists don’t celebrate Ash Wednesday.

That was a surprise to me.  I know many Baptists who observe Ash Wednesday, including me.  Why, many churches throughout the South, not to mention the North, also practice Ash Wednesday.  Perhaps we need to set the record straight.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent.  Lent is a time in the Christian calendar that eventually leads to Holy Week, or the week between Palm Sunday and Easter.  It lasts forty days and emphasizes repentance, confession, and fasting.  We follow Jesus into the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13) and recall Israel’s wanderings in the desert to live “not by bread alone, but by the very Word of God,” to feast on the spiritual manna of God’s forgiveness.

Ash Wednesday, therefore, inaugurates Lent by re-enacting the Jewish tradition of repenting with ashes.  This is an ancient custom, one in which a penitent sinner sprinkled ashes on the head as a sign that he or she was no match for God (Esther 4:1-3 for example; or, more dramatically, Jeremiah 6:26).  Although Jesus came to give God’s children “a garland instead of ashes” (Is. 61:3), this practice became a part of the Christian church as early as 130 AD.

These days, many churches are casting off rituals such as Ash Wednesday in order to get at the “relationship” one has with God.  Why practice these “rituals” when so many people no longer desire religiosity?

I can’t answer that on behalf of other Christians; but, for me, Ash Wednesday and the rest of the Christian calendar represents a structure that provides rich meaning in my own journey of faith.  It gives me a skeleton upon which to hang some healthy spiritual muscles.

To say that Ash Wednesday is not relevant is like saying my family tree has no relevance in shaping who I am as a person.  When I join Christ’s Church in practicing those time-tested traditions, I feel like I belong to something larger than myself–It gets me out of the self-centered, individualistic cult that Christianity has become for far too many communities of faith.

I’m not saying that a church is wrong for not practicing Ash Wednesday–After all, there is beauty in the mosaic of diverse communities that sustain faith on their own terms.  Rather, I am saying that a nose in the Body of Christ should not tell the arm what to do no more than the arm should look down on the nose because the nose can be snotty sometimes.

What matters most is that a variety of worship styles can bolster one’s relationship with God rather than hinder it.  For instance, I experience faith in a kinesthetic worship setting.  I like to use all five senses, not just sing songs or hear someone preach.  I like the feel of the ashes on my forehead, the smell of burning candles on the altar, the look of the purple frontal (tablecloth) on the communion table and the sitting-and-standing routine in the order of worship that helps engage my whole being.

It is a magnificent, inexplicable spiritual experience that actually has little to do with either ritual or religiosity.

Ultimately, Ash Wednesday reminds me that I am only human and that I, too, am in need of God’s grace day in and day out.   We who follow Christ pick up our cross daily and sing “Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go,” but a formal time of confession always makes me all the more willing to do so even in the midst of the failures and fragility of life.

Sources:

“The History and Meaning of Ash Wednesday,” by Richard Bucher

“The Beginning of Lent,” by Todd Olsen

“Lent for Baptists,” by Jim Denison